Louie, Season 3

How Children Inspire Louis C.K.’s Comedy.
Talking television.
July 5 2012 11:33 PM

Louie, Season 3

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How children inspire Louis C.K.’s comedy.

Louis C.K.
Louis C.K. in Louie, Season 3

Courtesy FX Network.

I watched last night’s Louie before I knew that Patton would be joining us to discuss it, but as it happens, I thought of him early on in the episode, when C.K. relayed his daughter’s wonderful joke about the gorilla and the ballet. This conceit—in which a comic relays the material of an untrained, unlikely savant—reminded me of one of Patton’s finest old stand-up bits. In it, he recalls attending an open-mic night where a mysterious figure known only as Dr. Pepper weaves an engrossingly elliptical yarn: a three-stranded monologue involving a roommate’s car, a muffin-eating dog, and mall-escalator etiquette. As Patton puts it in the bit, “If this was all premeditated, he would truly be a genius, on the level of Andy Kaufman.” In actuality, though, Dr. Pepper is no inspired avant-gardist, but rather a heroin addict who, while telling the joke, keeps nodding off and regaining consciousness further along in the narrative. “He fucking killed,” Patton reports, and, as he retells the guy’s story—mumbles, ellipses, and all—Patton borrows a little of Dr. Pepper’s thunder and kills, too. 

I don’t know or care if there was ever actually a Dr. Pepper, and I don’t know or care if C.K.’s daughter ever really told him that gorilla joke. (I suspect she did, in some form, but it doesn’t matter.) The delight, in both cases, is that we get to see an expert funnyman obliterate the formal rules and expectations of joke-telling by invoking and inhabiting an inexpert, alien perspective. Is this a recognized category of jokes, Patton?

C.K.’s daughter Mary Louise supplied him with the initial idea for last season’s “Ducklings” episode, and one important difference between the gorilla joke and the Dr. Pepper joke is that the inexpert perspective invoked in C.K.’s bit is from an innocent, not a junkie. A fascination with unspoiled, childlike attitudes is fundamental to C.K.’s comedy, beneath all the dejected jerk-off jokes. When I interviewed C.K. last year, I asked him about an old bit of his in which his daughter keeps asking the question, “Why?” to everything he tells her. “Pamela [Adlon] always says to me that, onstage, I’m a kid, I’m a child, and she always points that scene out and says, ‘That’s you,’ ” C.K. told me, adding, “If you take any subject and keep asking, ‘Why,’ without stopping, you’ll get to a point where there really isn’t any clear answers. It can be a bit painful and scary, so I think that’s a fun way to come at it.”

It’s crucial, in this context, that the stand-up footage in last night’s episode ended not with the gorilla joke, but, pretty jarringly, with the moment that Allison pinpoints at the end of her post: A sudden, seemingly out-of-nowhere detour into C.K. yelling at his daughter, his face contorted with fury. He’s not even certain why he’s so pissed off, and he soon realizes that he’s just become “her first asshole.” The child’s joke, despite its fanciful premise, makes a pure and inarguable kind of sense: The people who didn’t let in the gorilla were the people who didn’t let in the gorilla. The parent’s anger and anxiety are, by contrast, totally irrational and inexplicable. Welcome to adulthood, kid!

This episode’s title was “Telling Jokes/Set Up,” and I think C.K. must have intended the double meaning of the phrase “Set Up”—the arranged date with Laurie doubles as the long, awkward preamble to a grim punch line delivered in a dingy parking lot. Notice that, when we come back from the commercial break after the dinner party, the first thing we hear, over blackness, is Louie chuckling. Then the incidental music kicks in, and then we see the two of them hammering drinks at the local tavern and laughing manically, calling each other pissers even though there is nothing at all uproarious being said. This is a bleak tableau—two lonely people taking grim comfort in each other’s company, commiserating about how shitty life is—and it’s about to get even bleaker.

I’m not sure if C.K. would want his daughters to watch the scene in Lori’s pickup truck any time soon, Allison, but I agree that it represents, in part, a feminist or at least anti-piggish politics on C.K.’s part. Why should Louie expect a strings-free blow job? Why doesn’t Laurie have the right to demand reciprocity and to call bullshit on his insulting justifications? “That’s not fair,” she protests, in the second time in the episode that “fairness” is invoked—the first is when Jane doesn’t get Lilly’s and Louie’s experimental knock-knock jokes. “It’s not fair,” she moans. Jokes, like sexual favors, can have a transactional, asymmetric structure.

One of the best things about this series is that C.K. frequently writes arguments in which his character loses or is at least partially in the wrong. This scene starts off no differently. But then it takes an even more disturbing turn from parking-lot despair sex into shocking violence, in which Louie is the victim through and through. Laurie wins her $1,000 bet with Louie not because her “faggot” gambit works, but because she punches him hard in the face—the shattering of that window almost made me jump!—wraps her legs around his head, and threatens to break his finger if he doesn’t get busy. When he’s done with the feed bag, we get the long-delayed punch line. Does Louie want to see Laurie again? He doesn’t even hesitate: “Yeah, sure.” Rim shot, and scene. Roll credits.

Another question I have for Patton: What do you think C.K. was up to when, in writing the Papaya Dog scene, he had Allan tell Louie about the dead Connecticut comedian with the generic arms-through-a-woman’s-arms bit? Was this a stand-up comedian’s worst nightmare: that, when you die, your peers will stuff their faces with crappy hot dogs and fail to remember your hacky life’s work?

Also, in the Most Quotably Filthy Line of the Night contest, which I suppose I’m establishing with this sentence, I vote for “Your sperms are dying inside my mouth right now.”

Jonah

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